Monday 9 July 2012

Deliverance by James Dickey: the Original Novel (Hamish Hamilton, 1970), Basis for the 1972 John Boorman Movie; plus The Hunter by Richard Stark (1962), Basis for the 1967 Boorman Movie Point Blank

And so begins the third week of posts on books which begat perhaps more famous films. Bored yet? Well, tough: I've still got a handful of these to get through, so it's a case, I'm afraid, of like it, lump it, or find some other equally soporific and supercilious books blog to read (good luck with that). But I can at least promise that each of the remaining books/movies will be of the stone cold classic thriller variety, featuring as their villains a motley assortment of, well, Nazis, Nazis, and, er, more Nazis. Before we get to all those Nazis, though: some leering backwoodsmen! As, in the wake of David Morrell's First Blood, we head even deeper into the American south. Unlike Morrell's novel and its movie adaptation, however – indeed, unlike the vast majority of book-to-film adaptations – in this instance, I reckon the film – adapted by the author himself – is better than the source text...

James Dickey's Deliverance was first published in the UK by Hamish Hamilton in 1970, the same year as the US Houghton Mifflin edition. The jacket of the Hamilton edition was designed by Bernard Higton, a man who I've waxed lyrical about before, as he's based in Lewes, the East Sussex town in which, lest we forget (unlikely, I know, since, I'm always harping on about it), I live and work; he even, at one time, had his studio in the building in which I currently work. Anyway, Higton has had a hand in countless books over the years – not only as designer but also author and illustrator – among them the wrapper for the Hamilton first of Joseph Hone's The Private Sector.

Deliverance, as if you didn't know, is the story of a canoe trip by four white collar types through the Georgia mountains that goes disastrously – and horrifically – wrong; it was Dickey's debut novel, but he'd already had ten years as an acclaimed poet before Deliverance arrived, something which is evident in the prose of the novel: there are long descriptive passages peppered throughout. I actually found it somewhat overwritten, but then that probably speaks to my preference for leaner prose; in this 1976 Paris Review interview, Dickey claims that "Deliverance was originally written in a very heavily charged prose", but that he "spent two or three drafts taking that quality out". Certainly once the canoe trip gets underway there are passages of high tension and moments of memorable terror, notably one uncomfortable sequence that John Boorman's 1972 Dickey-scripted movie adaptation would turn into one of the most iconic cinematic scenes of the 1970s.

That scene is, of course, the assault by the aforementioned backwoodsmen on Ed (the book's narrator, played by Jon Voight) and Bobby (Ned Beatty), during which encounter Bobby is raped. It's a shocking episode in both the novel and the film, but it's lent an added horror in the movie by the ad-libbed "squeal, piggy" dialogue, which appears neither in Dickey's book nor, apparently, his screenplay. Indeed, stripped of Ed/Dickey's verbose narration, Boorman's film emerges as the superior beast, assisted by the genius casting. Voight and Beatty are great, obviously – as is Ronny Cox as the doomed Drew – but it's Burt Reynolds as the macho Lewis who steals the show, especially with the benefit of hindsight: all those action flicks he'd soon be starring in post-Deliverance, and here he's incapacitated and sidelined halfway through the movie. And the ending is rather more downbeat than Dickey's novel, too, suggesting that Ed is more scarred by his experiences than he is in the book.

Given my abiding preoccupation with all things Donald E. Westlake/Richard Stark, it would, I feel, be remiss of me not to mention that besides Deliverance (and a good many other fine not-adapted-from-novels films, among them Excalibur, 1981, and – a personal favourite of mine – Hope and Glory, 1987), John Boorman also directed another notable adaptation: the 1967 film of the debut Stark/Parker novel The Hunter (1962), alias Point Blank. As I'm sure is the case for other Stark/Parker fans, Point Blank was my first unwitting exposure to Parker – renamed and fairly drastically remodelled for the film as Walker (Lee Marvin) – and though the book and the film are quite different and separate entities (and not all Parker aficionados are that keen on the movie), for me, Point Blank still stands as one of my favourite ever motion pictures. But more than that, it was falling for Boorman's adaptation decades ago that would eventually lead to my finding Westlake and Stark, and in turn becoming co-blogger on The Violent World of Parker. So in a way, you can blame John Boorman for all the Westlake blogging that's ensued.

Now then. A question: is it safe?


  1. Hey, I've come around to Point Blank! I still think it has problems, but there certainly is a lot of good about it. I do need to do a better write-up.

    It's funny that you thought Dickey's prose was verbose. Not that I disagree, but it feels opposite but is actually consistent with my thoughts on the book.

    I once loaned that book to a Korean friend who was trying to learn English and wanted to read a novel as part of the process. I picked that one (out of only a handful of options--we were living at a co-op at the time and space was at a premium, so most of my books were in boxes) because the writing is complex but the words themselves are simple. There is never a need to head for the dictionary.

    Not that I'm an expert in teaching language, but it seemed like a good choice for learning how to process the language while still using the same words that most people do every day rather than memorizing vocabulary words that won't come up all that often (there is value in that, as well, of course).

    He liked the book.

  2. Haha, I was wondering if you'd pick up on that link. You're right though: Deliverance is well written, and certainly isn't of the William Boyd school of off-piste wording (there's nary a "boscy" in sight). Part of my problem with it was I don't think I was in the right frame of mind when I read it: most of the books I've been reading for this series of posts have been very light on description, very dialogue-heavy, and Deliverance isn't that kind of novel; it's more, for want of a better word, literary. So when I reached an early part where Ed, having had a beer, starts going on about how "the day sparkled painfully, seeming to shake on some kind of axis, and through this a leaf fell, touched with unusual colour at the edges", the contrary bastard within me just went "Oh piss off". I think I will read it again at some point though, just to see if my perception of it changes under different circumstances.

  3. Dickey stripped out a lot of the verbiage after his publisher suggested the highly poetic prose style jarred a little when the narrator is supposed to be a small town advertising executive.

    I like the book but the last part is weaker and far less real than what comes before. Possibly because Dickey got the idea from a canoe trip he took in the 1960s. 'Deliverance' is pretty faithful to what happened up until the group meet the rednecks. In real life they were friendly guys who probably saved Dickey's life by advising him not to continue down the river as it turned into unpassable rapids! After that the book is pure imagination and I think it shows. Also Dickey was influenced by Campbell's 'Hero With a Thousand Faces' and had to shoehoen the plot into a hero's journey narrative.

    Every time I read the book I find myself unsatisfied with it. But I always end up reading it again a few years later.


  4. Interesting. Dickey doesn't mention his publisher requesting changes in that Paris Review interview I linked, but he does state that he went through "two or three drafts", and that he made Ed (the narrator) an art director, so that he could achieve "a kind of unobtrusively remarkable observation that wouldn't call attention to itself". To my mind though, even after those various drafts, it still calls attention to itself.

  5. Following on Anonymous' comment, it's worth mentioning that the movie is a huge contributor to awful stereotypes about the American south.

    Not that it's perfect here, but foreigners reading our lit or watching our movies must think it's something like Mad Max. Actually, folks are pretty friendly, and the food is much better than it is further north (I grew up in Wisconsin and Michigan, now live in Texas, and my family is from Arkansas.)

    The movie is great, but it's not surprising that the director is a Brit. He processed all of these second-hand horror stories and then made one of his own.

  6. You mean, you're not all slavering monobrow moonshiners with a penchant for light buggery? I'm shocked! Mind you, here in the UK, I think you can blame The Dukes of Hazzard as much as Deliverance for our view of southerners. And on the flipside, in the wake of Taken, you lot probably think Europeans are a bunch of kidnapping people-trafficking rapists. And that film was directed by a bloody Frenchman!

  7. I think I found the book more readable than another of his - To The White Sea.

    But the film is much more memorable, and uncomfortable to watch.

    There aren't many 40-year old films that can spawn insults often used in my work-place, (and not only by me!) Remarkable considering the banter is conducted by men who would have been in primary school when the film was released. As it's not PC - I won't elaborate.

  8. faithful researcher9 July 2012 at 17:06

    Is it safe? Let's ask "The Marathon Man"...

  9. 'The Letters of James Dickey' is not a great read but there is a lot of information about 'Deliverance' and its publication history. If you like that sort of thing. That's where he mentions the publisher asking for re-writes.

    Dckey did contribute to that Southern Gothic image of inbred toothless moonshiners, although that wasn't his intention. The narrator is a southerner, too.

    Southerners hated Dickey for creating that image and northerners hated him because they thought he was some redneck Hemingway, full of politically incorrect thoughts. No wonder he drank so much.

    And speaking of gothic, does anyone remember the film 'Southern Comfort'? The poor man's version of 'Deliverance'.


  10. Col: I can probably imagine the insults Deliverance inspires!

    Faithful Researcher: Got it in one. Mind you, as clues go, that one wasn't terribly cryptic.

    Chris: Ta for the attribution on that Dickey info. And yep, I remember Southern Comfort. I'm guessing you're not keen on it? I like it a lot, but then I've got a lot of time for Walter Hill, especially The Getaway, The Driver (which everyone who raves about Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive should see), The Long Riders, 48 Hours and Extreme Prejudice.

  11. 'Southern Comfort' had some very effective moments (knife in the groin anyone?) but I seem to remember - and I haven't seen it for a long, long time - that the set up was a bit implausible. Lots of characters doing out of character things just to push the plot where it needed to go. Blowing up the house, for example. I should watch the film again to see if that still stands.

    Walter Hill worked on 'Alien' so he's okay by me.

    BTW Dickey's son wrote a memoir 'Summer of Deliverance' about the book's success and the making of the movie, along with his tortured relationship with his father. Probably not essential but it could be interesting.


  12. 'Summer of Deliverance' is very good. Christopher Dickey was hired by Life magazine to write about the making of Deliverance and was on set for most of the filming. Unfortunately he was used as a stand in for Ned Beatty for setting up the shot of the squeal like a pig scene and was so traumatized by it he fled the set and didn't have contact with his father again for years. The Life magazine story was never published but Christopher kept the notes from it. The rest of the book is about how James Dickey drank all the time and drove Christopher's mother (James' wife) to her death. They reconciled shortly before James died. I still remember the radio interviews he did for the book back in 1998 - they were very, very moving. Christopher Dickey became a famous journalist and is now the Paris and Middle East bureau chief of Newsweek magazine.

  13. Ta, Chris and BG, for the info about Summer of Deliverance. Sounds intriguing.

  14. For once I prefer the US 1st edition DJ illustration. This movie gave me nightmares as a kid and I swore off camping for decades. Then I hit my 30s and finally became the outdoorsy guy I always wanted to be. Believe me, after 20+ years of camping all over the US and Canada I can assure you there are no such thing as toothless, randy "mountain men" eager to ream "pretty-mouthed" campers. Lightning storms, torrential rain, flash floods, curious bears and marauding raccoons are dangers you will encounter more often than any mountain man.

  15. Lightning storms, torrential rain, flash floods... we can get all that here in the UK at the moment, John! Less so the bears and racoons, but we do have foxes.

  16. This film ... Yikes, this one has the rape scene which is still hard to watch. I can't imagine anything had ever been shown on screen like that before in a mainstream film (no pun intended). Obviously the four guys veered off the mainstream.

    Dickey was quoted as saying each of the male characters represents a certain male archetype. Burt: Neanderthal, Voight: Intellect, Beatty: Boyish man, Cox: Hippie/Beatnik compassionate. I wonder wtf the two rapists represented.

    Deliverance, The Exorcist, Jaws. Good Lord, no wonder the 70s was the decade of analysis/mental therapy.


  17. Yes, it was quite a decade for psychological thrillers – and conspiracy thrillers for that matter. As for the rapists, they definitely, DEFINITELY don't represent the male southern archetype. At least, not according to Trent, Chris and John.